neutrality vs. realism

What is actually the final goal of high-end audio: to reproduce recorded music as neutral as possible or to give the highest possible level of realism? For some manufacturers (like Spectral and Madrigal) it is the ultimate goal regarding their amplifiers, to sound like no amplifier at all. There is less coloration, less "house sound", more "truthfulness". I think this is a good basic consideration, but it must not derive the sound of it's musicality. Those amplifiers are generally sounding lifeless! Don't get me wrong, this is not about the tubes vs. solid state controverse at all, because I think that solid state amplifiers are able to give a high level of musicality without sacrificing neutrality (Boulder, FM Acoustics). What seems perfect on paper is not always the way to go: "neutrality" and "perfect measurements" are not the synonyms for musicality and realism.
Your mind is pretty well made up that "ultra high-end" amplifiers sound so much better, why bother ask for opinions? Again your post here seems to be pretty much a closed loop. Contrast your post with that of the fellow who bought an Onkyo receiver at a yard sale and is pleasantly surprised at how good it sounds. Listen to what you like and don't fret too much over these questions. If you feel that some distortion, some noise, some non-linearities add to the listening experience, consider yourself part of the new breed of audiophiles who have helped sound reproduction complete the circle. Good day.
Phew...I thought they were the same thing!
OK, inasmuch as "perfect measurements" don't sufficiently exist to guarantee full "neutrality" (or realism, by my acceptance), then good science doesn't necessarily provide sufficient realism. Granted. But since when does neutrality not equal realism? By striking a difference between the words we continue to muddy up these psychoacoustic waters.
Amps do things that aren't yet measurable that make them more "musical", which is assumed to be approaching purer neutrality to the upstream source. Otherwise a preferred "musicality" that's NOT neutral is simply a euphonic distortion (tube's 2nd order, for example), or coloration (HF droop, e.g.). Let's not confuse photography with painting.
Those who say that spectral neutrality is a prerequisite for a "musical" presentation also miss the boat, in that one can have the latter without flat frequency response, for example. Can we not just say that what we like may not be the objective "truth" electronically all the time, and be done with it?
Sure it seems that the very best systems are as neutral as possible, by definition, but there are as-yet unmeasurable criteria that are ALSO optimized that then lead such systems to be described as musical, as well, to out ear/brains. I need more coffee....Ern
This should be a good discussion. First, consider the older amplifiers with 0.001% distortion. Lots of feedback to give great specs, and terrible sound. I think we have come to realize that specifications do not equal great sound, but your question I think really goes to the heart of the listener, more so than the equipment. Even though you stated this is not tube vs solid stat I think it is a great example: quality tube amp, vs a solid state amp in the same league (price, quality etc). The solid state will "measure" better in almost every circustance, but some people will prefer the sound of the tubes. Analog and digital playback have the same phenomenon. In almost every aspect of measuring the CD will win, but many, including myself, prefer vinyl.
Now, because I am an acoustical engineer and design listening rooms for living, I would like to take a small twist on your topic to an area I know a bit better--the room. The room has, I think more variation, and in many cases more impact on the listening experience than any individual component. A room can actually be tuned to an individual's taste and there are always give and take. Let's start with the extreme, a studio control room. This is very neutral, and usually sounds a bit on the dead sound. While not over damped, it is damped more heavily than most rooms to keep reverberation times to a minimum. It is usually engineered the Helmhotz resonators and has an absolute (or close) frequency response. In most cases (with smaller studios), the heaviest damping is behind the speakers, and if there is a live end, it is behind the engineer. This is because (as an example), the live end is usually where the performers are and the dead end is behind the microphones. The goal in the studio is to give back the sound to the engineer as though he were standing in the performers position and the mics were speakers. This works great for the studio engineer, it would not be so great for most listeners. We have designed rooms with longer reverberation times for some people than others. Some want an overdamped room and a very dry sound. Some people play at high volumes and need sound isolation as well as slightly more high frequency attenuation.
Now to take it one last step further. I think you've really gotten to what building a system is about. It has to be musically engaging. There has to be the magic--not just the notes. Someone may be able to play the notes of a song, but they can't play the music. They just don't seem to have the sense, pacing, and naturalness to really play the music. I've heard many concerts that I felt like that was the case--and then I've heard others that I was just in awe of. In building a system, I think it's the same. While every component may not have that etherial magic to it, when combined with other parts of the system it does create a real naturalness, and a large part of that is the speakers coupling to the room. The most distortion, phase and otherwise, occurs due to this interaction. This interaction is need to give you a sense of space and dimensionality, which to me is what creates that naturalness in the presentation. Have you ever listened to a pair of speakers out in a pasture--no walls no interaction. Probably wouldn't sound too good--but you would have gotten rid of the one thing that causes the most distortion--the room.
I think I've said enough. I'm looking forward to others thoughts on this one as well.
my view of this issue is the concept of your system "getting out of the way of the music". when you are able to concentrate on the performance and not on the influence your system has on the musical have gone beyond 'HiFi' into 'just the music'......when it is the musical whole instead of particular pieces. i have pursued this concept for awhile.

my efforts have brought me to the realization that sometimes the absense of items in the signal path allows the music to come thru unrestricted. so neutrality or accuracy or realism or sounding 'live' or whatever you want to call it is attainable to some degree.

it is not neutrality verses realism.......but that neutral components or cables have the least influence on the musical message and ALLOW realism.

the biggest barrier to success in this challenge is that if you have a component in the signal path that is not neutral (i.e. it has it's own sound) then you need other components to balance that distortion with their own.....pretty soon it is a hopeless case. so you must build your system around neutral components initially if realism is your goal.

one real barrier to this approach is that components that are neutral are many times 'not exciting' when initially is not until many of these 'neutral' components are put carefully together that the synergy can happen and bring you closer to the musical event.
Oh, boy! Here we go again.

My take on this is that our ears are the ultimate judge, and I will grant that impressions may vary from person to person. If this makes me a "subjectivist" so be it.

Now, alot of the controversy and confusion come from the idea that psychological phenomena play a part in product auditioning, and that may very well be so. I do not discount that totally.

The other part of the controversy comes from the idea that bench measurements will tell us whether our listening impressions could be correct or not. Some people say that if an amp sounds right, then who cares what the bench measurements say. I am one of them. Other people say if the bench measurements are not "good" then the amp is no good no matter what it sounds like. The description given to them is "euphonic distortion"(pleasing distortion- whatever that might be). IMO the major fallacy with this latter method, is that it relies on electronic tests that have no direct bearing on the amplifier in "real world" use. It depends on largely test-tones, and and meters, in steady state conditions to make its tests. 20 years ago, this method was proved to be flawed, and thrown out the window, by anyone serious about audio, but it has kept "hanging around" ever since then. The classic foil for this is,"How come my Technics receiver has .0000000001% distortion, but that $10k amp has 1% distortion and sounds way better. My Technics has lower distortion, doesn't it? So the Technics should sound better." Now, granted, this is a simplified case, but the fact is that the measuring methods and equipment are simply not measuring the right things. They are measuring the things that they were designed to measure. Electrical characteristics. They were not designed to measure the listening quality of music. That is what ears are designed to do. And that is why ears should be the measuring instrument, and not meters. To think that meters can measure the complex interaction between the reproduced music, and the emotional reactions of the brain, by testing the function of a negative feedback circuit is quite humorous indeed. In fact, it appears that amp designers and measurement technicians do not even have a good grasp of how their products will interact with other components, like speakers, which is what they are supposed to drive. But they know all about how it will perform on an oscilloscope. Too bad we don't listen to oscilloscopes.
Ultimately the only measurement we need to know, is whether the product sounds good to us. All else is merely an attempt to quantify "why" it might sound good. I have read on these pages, that any experience in listening, which may contradict the measured numbers, is simply "explained away" by the red herrings of "self-delusion for the purpose of justifying expenditures", or "unverifiable subjective responses that could not withstand double-blind testing". Both cases calling into question, the abilities of the listener. I call into question the abilities and methods of the testers and equipment, and state categorically that they cannot withstand scrutiny, because they do not always conform with the actual real-world performance. The "psycological" argument is nothing more than a smoke-screen to mask the mis-application of the test methodologies that cause incorrect conclusions to be drawn about the actual listening performance of a product. These mis-applications, and the conclusions drawn, cause design changes to be done, that may actually detract from the listening performance of a product, as is the case with some high-negative-feedback designs.

I liken this to deep philosophical discussions, where there is great amount of study given to "why" or "what" is existence. But, ultimately, you have to live your existence, regardless of whether you can explain it or not. This is where the "rubber hits the road" and, so it is the case with listening impressions of audio gear. The measurements don't matter, if the gear sounds like crap, or if it sounds like heaven, for that matter.

I don't totally disregard measurements, but I don't let them tell me what I hear and what I don't hear. I would use measurements for what they are designed to do, and use my ears to do what they are designed to do.
I believe that neutrality and realism are one in the same when it comes to the goals of audio components and the reproduction of music. However, many (maybe all) companies that use such adjectives to describe their equipment do so only for marketing purposes. Understandably, they're in business to make a profit. Some manufacturers, such as Levinson/Madrigal, produce equipment that is lifeless and unemotional, painting a "two dimensional" picture and robbing the music of microdynamics and pace. The audiophile press has praised the "neutrality" and "accuracy" of such gear. Others companies, like Krell, tout "authenticity" and "realism," but have a highly polished, chrome plated, "larger than life" sound that is great for a brief audition and a quick sale but eventually proves to be too bright, too brash and fatiguing. Many users and purveyors of tubed gear assert a claim of "musicality," which I gather is supposed to a higher plane of both neutrality and realism. Unfortunately, tubed gear often produces a warm, euphonic and overly romantic sound that exaggerates the midband and smears the timing of music. I'm sure others will disagree with or be insulted by my opinions and examples, but ultimately, it comes down to what flavor of coloration you prefer.
i will try to add to this post as best i can. please disagree at will if you need to, i don't mind, i can always learn something as far as i am concerned
i have come to believe that if you want real music you should make a habit of attending live concerts.
however, how many of us can afford this habit, in terms of time and $$$, as often as we would like is another matter altogether. i cannot
thus we search for the means to reproduce the event in our homes, and can do so with surprising results given the tech and artistry in high-end equipment today.
i think many of us approach this hobby with something of a straight line postulate. we believe we know what 'musicality' is as a function of hi-fi equipment, though specs cannot necessarily prove it, we believe this musicality exists and we search for it under the assumption that with the right gear we can create a musical truth that satisfies our notion of what we expect in the absence of the actual musicians and venue.
personally i know when it comes to gear in my home that i do not want that truth of associated with say levinson amps. in a conversation i had recently someone described levinson gear to be extremely satisfying and well-engineered, but in the long run it is the world's best vanilla ice cream in a very expensive white bowl. some people will love this and such neutrality will be part of what they expect or believe their hi-fi experience should be.
i on the other hand have recently found that cary amps have moved me much closer to the musicality that i am searching for in music reproduction. the cary amps are anything but as neutral as say levinson or spectral, but long term whatever the coloration or warmth there is designed into dennis's amps is something that i believe i will very happily live with.
this hobby is not much different from an arbitrary, though purposeful and useful, axiomatic system.
not all of us will agree on what 'straight' is and our ideas of reproduced music will vary as do geometries.
this is what i love about this hobby

oh yeah, the search for musicality also allows us to indulge the obsessive compulsive aspects of our personalities without doing much harm except to our wallets
gotta love that

if what ive said has been said before, im not surprised, i imagine i have read similar posts in the past
i tried to contribute and keep this thread alive
The listening room has more to do with realism then most equipment.Measurements are good but those measurements are done in a whole different enviroment then ones listening room.
To get the most of ones equipment and ultimately the sound of realism you must adress the home listening room and set up.A reference system with great measurement set up improperly well sound high end and not at all realistic.
This hobby to me is about how realistic I can get my rig to sound.There are so many ways to achieve realistic sound it takes years of tweaking to truely acheive this goal.
Synergy between ones equipment like stated earlier is second to acheiving realistic sound in YOUR listening room.
I think this thread might better be called Neutrality vs. Musicality.

However, before I start, I must reiterate a tirade that I get into everytime folks start talking about realism. We must always remember that on every recording we play on our wonderful hi end systems we are listening not only to the chain of components in out hi end systems but also to:
1 - The artists playing the music/singing (of coarse) & the room they are being recorded in
2 - The microphones that are recording #1
3 - The cables that are attached to #2
4 - The mixing board/device that is attached to #3
5 - The recording device that is actually recording the music onto a master medium
6 - The master medium being copied onto another medium that can be played in your Hi End system

All of the above, we are at the mercy of the folks that recorded the music. To really achieve any sense of realism, a recoding engineer must know what he is doing, and must use the best recording devices he can (devices that are well matched like a fine hi end audio system).

Even taking the utmost care in recording, getting 'truly live sound' from most recordings is NOT EVEN THE ENDING GOAL (most of the time). Many music production companies just want their stuff to be ablel to sound good on the average jambox. A few specialty recording labels (e.g. Chesky), do use high quality audio reference systems to moniter their recordings.

Thus, the odds of ever getting truly live realistic sound out of any recording using any hi end system are... well... are very slim if not impossible.

What is possible, however, is to get a good sense of the music and the artists creating it. We can hear the subtlities of the performance that make artists great. We can even get an illusion of the artist in our rooms that grabs onto our imagination, but many times is oh so surreal because live music almost invaribly never sounds like this. Heck, I have had sound engineers who have been recording music for 30 years tell me that stereo recordings really are false (so is the whole concept of soundstage) and the best recordings are in MONO because at live music due to all the sound reflections, you really only hear stuff in MONO. These guys record only in MONO. These guys probably have a point, but I am adicted to the sound of stereo.

This all being said, let me get back to Neutrality vs. Realism. Realism should be the end goal of a recording... but almost invaribly it is not. Neutrality of a hi fi system should get us to the end goal of realistic sound if it can be attained.

The problem I have with the last paragraph I just wrote is defining NEUTRALITY. What exactly are we saying when we bandy about the term 'neutrality'? Is it flat frequency response from a system??? What I say to this is good luck getting flat frequency response out of any system. Even if one's speakers can deliver a flat frequency response from 20hz to 20khz, most rooms that people listen to music (in their espective houses) will NOT have a flat frequency response with this speaker. Just to support a 20hz frequency, any idea how long a room must be? Frankly I forget... but I want to say somewhere around 100'+. This does not even take into consideration other reflections and frequency absorbtions that occur in most rooms. Then you have to consider your listening position and having your ears precisely on axis. This can be more difficult than it sounds.

Even with the capability of getting a flat 20hz to 20khz from one's speakers and one's room does not insure it is going to happen. Contrary to the myth that was started during the THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) Wars of the 80's, stated statists tell us little about an amplifer's ability to produce sound through any given speaker. One's amplification and speaker interact with each other in such a way that that they MUST be mated well together. there are reasons why their are $300 amps and $3000 amps and even $30000 amps. I could go off on this tangent for many paragraphs but I will get back to my point.

In addition to amplification one's preamplification can (and does) make a HUGE difference in how a system sounds. Preamplification can influence frequency response quite a bit. I have heard too many preamps that are rolled off both the top and bottom ends with an emphasized midrange. Additionally, your preamp must match your amp and speakers and sources.

Sources to can affect frequency response.

Anyway enough on frequency response. FR is not the end all thing in audio. One might be able to have flat frequency response from an amp / speaker / room combination; however, one's source and preamp can make HUGE impacts on the subtle details of sound that comes out of the speakers. The end detail of the sound of a system can only be as good as the sound that is coming out of the source being played.

The preamplification regulates the volume/gain of this sound, and has an amazing impact on the resolution/transparancy/detail of a system.

So what does Neutrality have to do with system resolution/transparancy/detail? This is a good question. Frequency response can be measured per se... but the actual resoultion of sound of what is being played is a mUCH more subtle thing. And measuring it... is problematic.

This is where I think the term MUSICAL enters the picture. Musical systems IMHO can convey the subtle detail that is offered by recordings. Musical systems work at getting a flat frequency response; however, due to the many problems listed above, this may not be altogether possible. HOWEVER, the trade offs a musical system has in frequency response, are made up by this presentation of detail. Musical systems are also balanced and well matched. Aiming to get the BEST SOUND POSSIBLE FROM THE SPEAKERS OF THE SYSTEM. Many speakers just cannot dynamically (or produce 20hz to 20khz flatly) come close to live music. Speakers such as Maggie 3.6's, I would say are very musical speakers. With the right electronics the 3.6's can show incredible musical detail.

Effectively, every system is limited to the end sound of the speakers of that system. And the speakers end sound is limited to the room that they are in. Neutrality is a very difficult term to define as it relates to audio systems. Musicality of a system has something to do with how well one can get their speakers to sound in the given room. Component matching is very important in a given system. Realistic sound is well... a bit of an oxymoran (most of the time) because most recordings are not recorded to be monitored as 'realistc'.

So what is the goal we are striving for as audiophiles? I would put forward the following:

To work at getting our speakers and room to sound as realistic or live sounding as possible using recordings that were recorded to sound live (unamplified music is best). Very few recordings qualify here... Most of us have to trade off frequency response and dynamics; HOWEVER, inner detail is something that is on recordings that allows us to hear what the music did sound like in the studio as it was recorded. We can hear subtilty and inner detail in our systems.

I must leave now, I wish I had more time to elaborate because I have not even adressed many other issues. And I fear I have over simplified everything I have stated above.

What is realism and is it good? I just went to see Angela Bofill in a small theater. Between the "commercial" electronics and speakers it wasn't that pleasant...
The next day I put her lp on my Linn with Levinson gear and Martin Logan spkrs and WOW! I liked her better on vinyl
then "live". Now what??
And the discussion about the measurements is what us Linn folks have been saying about CD's from the beginning. A electronic measuring device are NOT my ears. CD's may replicate scientifically music notes but what does that mean musicality. No IMHO.
Thsalmon: Right on! Your descriptions, although generalized, match my impressions exactly in every case. Funny how that works!

Re the original post, I'm not sure what point is being made here. "Neutrality" and "Realism" ought to be one and the same, so maybe I'm not understanding the definitions. In my mind, both describe a desire to approach the original recorded sound as closely as possible, without "romantic" or "euphonic" colorations (which many people undoubtedly prefer to realism). Unless maybe you are referring to neutrality as a measurement quality rather than a sonic one, in which case you have a point. By the way, I have never felt Madrigal products to be anywhere near neutral, at least by my definition of the term. They have always sounded extremely polite and sanitized, and quite lacking in life. Many people would refer to this as "refined", and some might even call it "neutral", but I think that is a misnomer. "Neutral" to me means that you can't tell the component is there, and that is most certainly not the case with their products. Granted, their deviations from neutrality are on the "subtractive" side rather than the "additive" side (eg, Krell), but they are not neutral.
Every one of the above posters has given descriptions that are right on the money. The interesting part of all these discussions is that it leads me to conclude what I have intuitively known all along. The room and the equipment become one and the real difference is between ones ears. People have preferences for everything from colors to human features. I've always wondered if the blue I see is the same color inside another persons head. I also wonder the same thing about sound.
Sof762, you might have preferred the CD version of Bofill to the live performance also!

Bob P.
Seems to me either goal is simply unreachable. And that most systems can even approach either goal in one or two areas. So we're down to "picking our poison", deciding for ourselves what is most important to the individual.

A small system can do a creditable job of reproducing reasonably accurate timbers, but will not play loud, have bass or dynamic power and will present a small soundstage. Bigger systems can create larger sound with extended height illusions, play loud and go deep but it seems the bigger they are the harder getting the actual "sounds of the instruments" right seems to be.

While I would not set up measurements as the be-all end-all, it is interesting to note in reviews where measurements are present how even a small relatively inexpensive speaker can measure pretty flat, but large systems almost always have very significant frequency response anomalies.

And in practice, I have heard many high$ high end systems that were very impressive but didn't seem to reproduce instumental timbers as well as my little pair of LS3/5A monitors. And I have a problem personally spending BIG bucks for a speaker that in some areas can be outdone by a much less expensive or involved system. I have focused mostly on speakers here, but the other components do add to the fun!

So where does that leave us? We go to concerts to listen live and try to get a system that gives the "gestalt" of music to each of us, all using his own criteria of what aspects of live sound most trigger our pleasure response. Hopefully. I have heard many audiophiles brag thet their system was so good and revealing that they could only listen to 10% of their recordings with pleasure! I am not sure what the fun is in that, but hey, whatever!

3ox, I am reminded of the joke concerning an audiophile going to a concert (classical) and saying "there isn't enough bass slam!" Most audiophiles are pursuing a system that gives them the sound that they are looking for, hence equipment that tailors the recording to their version of "reality".

Bob P.
Whether you call it "realism" or "musicality" or (probably the most correct term) "euphony," it is definitely not the same thing as neutrality. An analog rig is not neutral--the kinds of distortion inherent in that medium are well-known. But it sounds more "real" or "musical" or "good" to many people. And there's evidence that it's those very distortions that make it sound so appealing. No one who sought neutrality would touch a vinyl disk. But many people (me included) love them.

My general advice would be to pursue what sounds good to you, and don't waste your time putting a label on it.

(On the other hand, Floyd Toole's crew at Harman has done some interesting work suggesting that most people actually prefer more neutral speakers. So consider the possibility that "neutral" really is what you like.)
Thsalmon -

I think your concluding sentence summed it well!! I've long since wearied of these endless wars about neutrality, tubes, SS and whose product(s) most closely approximate reality. You pick your poison and live with it. If a Marantz receiver gives you a satisfying illusion, stick with it. (Wish that would work for me. I'd have a lot more money in my pocket.)

I think that we are all looking for the same things i.e. a system that can deliver all of the subtle and delicate details of a recording :

A) without loosing any warmth in the mid-bass, liquidity of mids or definition of low frequencies

B) without introducing any artifacts of the systems own doing

C) present it with slam, impact, delicacy, shrillness, etc... as necessary

D) do it with excellent spatial characteristics

E) maintain an even, natural tonal balance

F) reproduce all of the subtle, yet mandatory, harmonic overtones in the proper structure that one hears in nature

G) have limitless dynamic range at any listening level.

The main variables as to how we end up in different places in terms of systems has to do with the fact that we all have different listening skills, hearing abilities and personal preferences.

We do not all know how to "listen" nor do we all hear or like the same things. The first part ( listening skills ) can be learned. Their are actual courses that one can take in their own home that can teach you how to become a better, more skilled listener. Personally, i think that this can be both beneficial and a drawback. Critical listening has both ups and downs.

The second part ( hearing ) has to do with the shape of our inner ear and how our brain and nerves process that info. We might hear identical notes, yet due to the size and shape of our ear passages, that identical note could be processed by our individual brains with slightly different frequency responses, amplitudes, etc... Obviously, this is a variable that we as a group could never overcome due to physical attributes.

As to the third variable in the equation, personal preference is just that. I can not tell you how something sounds, tastes, feels and know for a fact that you are experiencing the same joys, displeasure or lack of concern that i did about the subject. You might be able to better understand how i feel about the subject though communications, and you might even agree to a large extent, but that does not mean that you will go through the same exact experience / emotions if put into the same situations.

With that in mind, it would be difficult to find two people that would build identical systems even if they had identical rooms. Now throw in the fact that both could listen to the same system yet hear / listen for different things. They would obviously take note of the specific attributes of the system ( or food, clothing, etc.. for that matter ) and process the things about that system that they PERSONALLY found most important. After all, we all rank the various aspects of system performance with different levels of importance. While some might consider accurate tonal and timbral balance most important, others might think that imaging and soundstage are more important. Then you'll have some that feel that dynamic range, spl and bass extension should carry more weight in the rankings, etc... We all like different things and rank different system attributes in importance as individuals. While doing all of this "ranking" and "critical listening", our levels of enjoyment and personal involvement during that situation might vary wildly. Some would rank "musicality" or "personal involvement" with the music higher than any of the above, regardless of how well other aspects of performance measure up.

To me, it is about ALL of the various aspects that make up a music reproduction system. While i might rank my personal values about system attributes different than you, we all strive for something that WE as individuals can enjoy. As such, audio reproduction becomes a very personal quest and we should all buy what we prefer as individuals. Nobody can tell me what i like or how something sounds. I have to experience it for myself, fully digest the situation and then form my own opinions as to likes, dislikes, etc... That is why we have different brands, makes, models, flavours, colours, textures, shapes, sizes, etc... Every manufacturer has their own ideas as to how to fill your needs but only you know EXACTLY what your needs are as an individual.

There IS something out there for everyone, it is just a matter of finding it. Hopefully, we can share our experiences in a manner that helps others locate what they are seeking out in a system. Sean
Sean what a great post!!!!!!!!! Awesome. I was so impressed by your post I'm going to print it and share it with other audiophiles. You hit so many facts right on the mark. I hear what I like, I feel what is right for me, and others look for something completely different. We must each find what we are looking for, to hear the things we like, and you are totally correct, each person is looking for "their sound". While we are all trying to achieve the same goal, we all take different roads to get there. Thanks for a great post Sean.
What ever you think sounds best. Sometimes when I listen to a great system, I forget where I am and get drawn into the musical moment. This illusion usually occurs when the system does not add any distracting sonic effects. I prefer tubes but good solid state also can do it. Musicality it first but you need to be somwhat neutral but not to the point of being clinical.
I would like to add my 2 cents to this question....

"to reproduce recorded music as neutral as possible or to give the highest possible level of realism?"...

I remember (many yeras ago) visiting Lyric Hi-Fi in NYC. The great Mike Kay demoed the Mark Levinson ML-1 per amp against Audio Research SP 3a-2. The Levinson, to me was more neutral, clean as spit and polish and astonishingly fast!! The ARC, however, sounded (to me) more like the concert I went to two weeks earlier! For was as simple as that!!

Ok, this thread has not been as interesting or funny as I expected. The essential problem is that stereo doesnt do real life. It's a 2 dimensional medium. So, you can either strive for neutrality, each component adding to or subtracting from the signal as little as possible, and listen to what the recording engineers intended. Or you can play with frequency response to try to make things three dimensional and flesh things out and sound realistic.

I read a review of a preamp a year or two ago that I thought was strange. The reviewer said it sounded different from his reference, but couldnt say which was right. Then he said it sounded different from no preamp, cdp straight into the amp, which would seem to suggest it was not neutral. The he said it sounded more like the real life performance he had just attended than either his reference or no preamp at all.

Some time ago, Carver Corporation marketed a preamp with a "sonic holography" circuit. What was that? Just an equalization from flat, or deviation from neutral, in order to sound more like real life.

A famous guy who quit hi-fi (and who I won't name) said: "Audiophiles don't give a damn about whether their systems sound like real music as long as it pleases them. It was inevitable, though, when the vast majority of music-lovers never hear live, unamplified music to compare their playback with." I think that's the answer to the original query above.

Althouh I dont really care if my system measures flat, so long as it sounds to me like the real life voices of my favorite performers (or the real life sounds of specific instruments), I think I like all of my equipment because it is neutral. I think it sounds like real life because each component is as neutral as it can be and either the recording engineers did a really good job or I seem to somehow fill in the blanks.

That's the only way we can make any progress, if every one has the same goal of neutrality. All of the high-end stuff that doesnt aim for neutrality leads us astray.
"Realism" is unattainable. The recording microphone is in no way as sophisticated as the human ear; something is always lost when a microphone picks up sound. And since our rigs are at the mercy of the source media, the best we can hope for is the most minimal of sound degradation through OUR audio chain. Even if you had the "theoretically realistic" system, you are still going to be subjected to the recording anamolies that will tell you it's a reproduction and not the real thing.

So it now boils down to what our individual tastes prefer - because no two people will hear the same thing. We all have an inherently personal response to live sound: different experiences, physiology and tastes. So if there was no equipment coloration, we would then respond to the recording losses and may or may not like what we hear. That's what neutrality will do.

But if we like what we hear, and even if it's attributed to even-order harmonic distortion, cross-over distortion, cable losses, whatever, then we spends our money and makes our choices. We will never attain the realism we hope for - but oh the fun in trying.
Paul, only 2 dimensions? i experience 3 dimensions with most recordings and regularly have that "this is really happening here and now" sensation. there is resolution in the software to recreate the 3 dimensional illusion if you can reach it and then present it unrestricted.

as my system has developed these "happening here and now" occasions are more and more fact, normal with my vinyl set-up now.

is it real life? of course not.....but it does get close enough to take me to another place that i like and is truth. the tiny little things that my system does now are the major reason for the increase in the moments of suspended reality. these tiny things are what happens when you approach the technical limits of your equipment or room and the musical message might normally break you refine your system you control the musical message at these critical moments and the picture becomes complete and real.
Oh Mike, I dont disagree with you at all. I get a lot of enjoyment out of my stereo system too. And I even think I get a sense of that palpable 3 dimensional presence stuff. But really, all you have is left and right, and from that you can derive depth. But, the sense that the sound is coming from 3 dimensional performers spread around a soundstage is an illusion or an artifice. Of course, if you close your eyes in a real live performance, can you tell how fat the soloist is?

A friend said this: "when you listen to a stereo you are listening to two channels creating a virtual image at a listening position in the room. It is radiating quite differently from a live stage of instruments and it is attempting to achieve a very limited result: a facsimile at your head. The representation of a stage of instruments at the virtual stage in front of you is very inaccurate. In stereo there are two speakers emitting one instrument as opposed to a live event where each instrument has one source region. Having it sound live will only happen rarely by coincidental alignment of factors and even then it won't be fidelity to the original event, it will only have a sense of generic aliveness."

That illusion of generic aliveness is what I think you and I are enjoying from our stereo systems. Especially when we are listening to a favorite vocalist.


The only direction towards reality that could yield appreciable results is multi-channel sound. With HT having set the table for audio multi-channel, the results insofar as multi-channel audio go, are seriously compromised. All those who believe in some inherent rightness of two channel reproduction will, invariably, point out to failed attempts in the past. A very progressive way of thinking. The record producers will use the capability with varying degrees of "realism" and will, no doubt, be unable to refrain from exaggeration. On that last point, do you know of anyone or anything in audio that is not the embodiment of "exaggeration"? Good day.
I've only been a real 2-channel "nut" for about three years now, and up until a few months ago I thought I had a good handle on these audio terms we use for reference.

Now I'm not sure.

I always hear these arguments between neutral and musical. Doesn't neutral imply that it's somewhere in the middle? If so, what's on the other side? UNmusical? Therefore, wouldn't we always want musical?

How does one determine neutral? Is there a standard?

Why is neutral referred to as being "real"? I've been to some live performances that are very musical.

Are "live and "real" the same? When you attend a "live" concert or performance where multiple mikes, amps, electriconic instruments and mixing equipment is employed, is that really..."real"?

Therefore, is it only performances utilizing acoustic instruments considered real? can the venue or hall impose such characteristics as warm or neutral?

I really started to rethink these terms recently when I was trying different tubes and cables in my system.

Overly detailed voices seemed to fool me more into thinking the person was in the same room with me breathing into a mike. But that's just it. A mike. When you talk to a person, even close up they never sound like these high-rez recordings. So is that real? Voices that are fuller and a little less detailed on top sound to me more "organic" [oh no, that term], but sometimes do less of a job of sounding like they're in the same room.

Terms like warm, cold, bright, dark, detailed, dull or veiled, airy, holographic make some sense to me.

But NEUTRAL, LIVE and REAL are much harder to pin down.

So, I've come to this REALization. There is no standard or paradigm, just what sounds good to the listener. And we shouldn't argue about these terms because they are all so vague and relative to each person's tastes and perceptions.

I'm not saying they're completely useless, because they do offer a good reference. But too much is placed on their importance. They're not, they're just descriptions.

Sorry for sounding like Andy Rooney.
I read the original post as a restatement of the old question: "Do you want your system to make your music sound good (musical), or do you want your system to accurately portray what's in the grooves (neutrality). Tok2000 makes an excellent point about the quality of our music software being a major determinate of musicality/neutrality. Is a system really a high end system if it makes a shrill recording sound warm and pleasant? The accurate reproduction of an input signal should be the goal of all high end equipment (EQ devices excepted). Any sonic deviation from this definition of neutrality should be considered distortion. The problem with this line of reasoning is that we don't have a comprehensive set of tests and measurements that can accurately describe the human music listening experience. Some interpret this predicament to mean that we should ignore measurements and rely entirely upon our own individual hearing. Instead I think it merely means we, as both listeners and equipment designers, still have much to research and learn about music reproduction.
Indeed, Onhw -- but if you listne to a lot of acoustic music as I do, then a violin is or isn't. Badly or well rendered onto the support (vinyl, or digital). However, when you have electronic musical equip & sound effects, it's a different matter!
Gregm, I'm not sure I understand your comment. Are you saying a poorly recorded violin still sounds like a violin? Or it doesn't sound like a violin? To clarify my early post, "to make your music sound good", by that I mean should your system alter the music signal in such a way as to make even widely different quality recordings conform to the listener's preconceived notion of what a given instrument should sound like. In my mind this would make your system the equivalent of comfort food. It's emotionally satisfying and filling, but it's also non-challenging and eventually boring.
Onh, I agree with your rendition of "comfort food". But, yes, a poorly recorded violin still sounds like a violin -- because it's acoustic & you know, in conjunction with the other instruments, what it is: you have the live experience of the violin vs the cello, etc... But when I get to eletronic instruments, & heavy mastering, I can't really tell what the engineers have done. I don't have a live, sonic "benchmark" to refer to. There, the production qualities (or mastering "tricks"?) are part of the end product: heighten the 3-kHz region, give some boost to bass... how can I tell if my system is reproducing "correctly" what the producer(s) intenteded? Cheers
I totally agree that there is no live reference point for nearly all pop/rock recordings. However, I would take it even further for the case with even audiophile/purist recordings is not so clear cut. An experienced recording engineer can effectively control the sound of a recording by his/her choice of microphones and mic placement. Without using any EQ or other outboard processors the sound can be made upfront and forward, louder/softer, bright, warm or spacious. Regardless of the resolving power or musicality of their system, how can an audiophile know what particular sonic flavor the engineer was trying to acheive?
The lack of a live reference is a problem, sort of. I just picked up and played the new Alison Krauss and Union Station Live cd - really enjoyed it (I'm a fan not a critic). Here's the thing: it's a live recording that you listen to through your speakers in your home. The music goes into the mics, into the mixers and electronic equipment, onto the cd, back through your cdp and amp and then through your speakers. Sounds better to me than listening to the singer and band in a typical large venue through those big p-a speakers, whatever they are.

I do have a live reference for Alison and band, though it's from quite a few years back and I am losing brain cells day by day. I heard her at a small venue in LA, real close up (like less than 10 ft). She did an acapella unamplified second encore of "I Will" that was one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard. We talked afterwards too. I've heard other bluegrass and folk groups unamplified, some other types of performers too. So there can be a live reference for some kinds of pop music.

But you're right that, in general, nearly all pop/rock recordings are sort of arbitrary constructs. Yet, within each recording there are components, voices and instruments that do have live referents. If we've ever heard them, and if we can only remember them.

Lots of problems, but our minds just seem to fill in a lot of blanks.
Just to add to Onhw & Paulwp points -- there are a few cases when some engineering trickstering just MAY trickle out through the speakers; on Barbirolli's Mahler 5 (EMI), the sound level goes down perceptibly just before a crescendo in the first part -- to accommodate the dynamics & intensity of the full orch. entering, of course. But, I agree these cases are very few, and we usually can'r tell what even the classical engineer has been up to.
Paulup, I think you've said something quite important - that our minds seem able to fill in the blanks.

How can we get deeply into the music in a stereo if, admittedly, it doesn't as yet sound much like "real" sound sounds, or how "real" music sounds for that matter (my stereo certainly doesn't, yet still produces in me a musical experience)?

That must mean that a stereo need not convey a complete simulcrum of how sound is, and how music was when we heard it live, for the mind to go into the music. Which means that we are not trying to merely create a soundfield "out there" that is just like "reality" (read: the absolute sound), but rather, trying to create a stereo that creates a SUFFICIENT catalyst to our minds for them to sink deeper.

We have trouble seeping into the music when it doesn't sound sufficiently "real". When we first sit down, our analyzing mind wants accuracy and detail, but then as we go deeper, our deeper listening mind wants more existential nuance that has to do with continuity. At each level, if that stimulus is not sufficient, then we don't go deeper. And, contra, if there is too much accuracy we don't go deeper (a system that is overly detailed can be seen as being "hyper-real", or rather, the person who constructs it only wants sound at that level, or only knows that level exists until he hears a component that has SUFFICIENT detail yet also something deeper).

In this view, musicality is not simply found in a component, but in the component's relation to the mind that is listening; "musical" components are ones that SUFFICIENTLY catalyze the mind to go to the next deeper level.

And this means that "the absolute sound" is not some-thing out there that we need to find, as if it is an object we can get ahold of if we can make our components "real" absolutely, but rather, the "absolute sound" is found in a component/mind dynamic - one that does not, in a stereo context, necessarily need the rendition to be infinitely accurate in order to catalyze a musical experience.

Which, in turn, explains why we can have components that are not overwhelming detailed (what the accuracy school defines as how you get more "real")yet are very musical - just like live music is.

With that said, live music is better. Definetly an important reltionship - comparing live sound traits to stereo sound traits (and this of course makes sense because we evolved hearing "live" sounds, not recreated ones) - but perhaps not wholly determinant towards catalyzing a "musical" experience, the dynamic, in the listening mind.

Just some thoughts. Would be interested in you thoughts too.
Asa, actually most of the people I know who aim for an accurate frequency response do not do so in the interest of excessive detail. Rather, they find audiophiles perverse because audiophiles tolerate frequency response aberrations in the midrange and tend to like an elevated high end with lots of detail, e.g., the early famously popular moving coil cartridges. Pros who strive for accuracy tend to use the live concert hall as a model. In electronics, they want complete accuracy. In speakers, they aim for a flat frequency response from bass through upper midrange, and a somewhat downward sloping upper end to approximate what happens in real life. That sort of accuracy is generally musical. Speakers that are ruler flat in the treble off axis as well as on can be sort of relentless in real world rooms.

The members of the accuracy school with whom I am familiar regard excessive detail as unnatural and an inaccurate representation of live music. It's in the midrange that accuracy is paramount.

There are people who like amps that are demonstrably inaccurate in the bass and midrange. Maybe because their speakers are inaccurate in some complementary way, or maybe they just like a mellow sound. I dont know.

It's an old-fashioned idea, one that has been ridiculed in Stereophile, but I want my electronic components to do nothing to the signal but pass it along. Any deviation from a flat frequency response, and distortion, and character like grain or hardness (which I think can be explained by some small deviations from a perfect frequency reponse), I don't like - unless it's in a portion of the frequency spectrum where it doesnt really hurt, e.g., a little added warmth, a little less presence giving more of a sense of depth or outside of my hearing range. I think accuracy is important, because accurate components allow designers and users to focus on what needs to be improved. This idea that everything sounds different and needs to be matched with their components synergistically is a saleman's boon, and a bore. A perfectly accurate system still needs help with room interaction.

Yet, we fill in the blanks, and tolerate, as you suggest, a variety of inaccuracies, mostly subtractive deficiencies rather than additive. (It's hard to ignore an excess of energy in any part of the frequency range, except maybe the mid bass. It's hard to ignore noise and distortion components.) We are especially adept at filling-in, completing patterns, finishing sentences, and I think that the part of our brain that processes sounds does the same thing.

Now to your really interesting McLuhan-esque idea, an experience or replication of the absolute sound through the listener's interaction with his system. We know that stereo can't recreate the live event, it can only make a suggestion (Like Michelangelo's last works in marble, which some might think unfinished). Yet, some of us sit there and feel very much like we are in the presence of our favorite performers.

That's my objective.

I think I agree with you that musical components, good components, are those that "sufficiently catalyze the mind" to complete the pattern. And I would add that do not give false cues that might lead to an unrealistic picture.


Hear hear, Paulwp. Well said, and without hyperbole. When I hear a fine live performance, as I do several times a week, it would be a silly argument indeed, for one to tell me the accuracy of the sound precludes mind/music catylization. It should be without saying, when it comes to home music systems, the last thing I want is a component malady detracting me from enjoying music. If one thinks a system that performs sufficiently close to reality is boring, then, oh well...
Paul, great post!
Muralman, whereas I fundamentally agree with your premise, but even in a live situation (actually, quite often for me, in some of the cheaper seats!), the INaccuracy of the first-arrival/secondary arrivals mix DOES get in the way of that mind/music (or better: ear/brain) catalyzation.
Just recently I heard the glorious Andre Previn conductiong the BSO and Thobodeau in the Ravel Left Hand Concerto, and the orchestra sounded SPLENDID from 6th row center. After the overture the 9' Steinway's way OFF-axis sound was anemic, lacking body and normal spectral protrayal! As a pianist it took me quite a few minutes to get past this, and I was reminded again that one doesn't listen to pianos too close at Symphony Hall!..................
Likewise a week before I heard my friend Marty Pearlman leading his marvelous Boston Baroque in his orchestration of a Monteverdi opera in my favorite Jordan Hall. But instead of my usual center balcony perfect seat (!), I had to sit front left orchestra, which provided more detail of the period strings, especially (orchestra was on the left, soloists on the right), but too many times the acoustic ping-ponging of a vocalist as he/she turned while holding a note, resulting in a sidewall reflection overwhelming a first arrival, threw me off the "total music appreciation" cart. Such a bouncing acoustic image would NEVER be tolerated in the recording of the piece (which should be available next spring. So unless one sits in line with the mics, for example, live music in even the best halls can be a dicey affair to us who are trained BOTH by such AND our audiophilia. Live sound is perfect? By no means, unless you're sitting in the right place (seat)in the right place (hall) in the right place (frame of mind/receptivity)!
Yet there's of course something still so magical about a live performance well done despite acoustic impurities, thank god!
I don't think that systems that perform suffieciently close to reality are ever boring, its just that - and Paulwp please take note here - the variables used to describe or define what is sufficiently close are many times not reducable (at least not yet) to measurable responses. The accuracy school I'm referring to looks to measurable variables like frequency (by your last paragraph, Paulpw, I don't think you fall completely in this school, no one ever does by this decade, but I do notice the mention of frequency as you main defining quality, one that measures relative quantity across of spectrum of observation). The result is a bias that seems to imply that such factors are determintive towards this sufficiency, and the default towards that "accuracy" bias leads invariably to its contra-implication, namely, that that which may not be measurable is less important.

We seldom see dogmatic acolytes of scientism anymore, but the bias, as an operational force in the argument, still remains.

So, are there sufficient qualities of stereo rendition that are also not measurable?

Question: When listening to a stereo, as the mind "let's go" of its tendancy to think (deepening musical perception DEFINED by its cognitive fading)does the mind percieve qualities of music that frequency et al can not define?

My point is that at deep levels of stereo perception we experience existential spatial/temporal cues that, as yet, are not measurable, and YET, are VERY important for sufficiently catalyzing the mind to these deeeper levels.

Its not only that our mind is filling in "frequency" in places where it is insufficient, but that at a deeper level - beyond present empiric abilities of quantitative analysis - the stereo component that is highly "musical" is "filling in" spatio-temporal cues so that our mind perceives that existential perception as congruent with "real" space/time.

At the more surface levels of listening - when the thinking mind is "looking" for sound - the measurable variables are critical; a stereo that has insufficient frequency performance draws the thinking mind's attention to that incongruency so you would never go deeper. But a stereo (or the mind of its assembler) that looks PREDOMINANTLY towards measurables such as frequency et al, and whose creation in sound reflects that bias, will not go AS DEEP.

Its not as simple as saying that bias towrds hyper-detail is the issue...also bias towards (attachment of) the measuring ruler of science and its Galilean perspective.

I will stop there; enough to digest.

Paulw, the foregoing is a foil/catalyst for your response, if any, not personally directed.
Interesting point, Subaru.

Even live music can be un-musical, as in, keep you from falling into the musical meaning deeper.

So, even if frequency is OK, that is not the determintive variable in the dynamic of "musicality", or catalyzing the thinking mind to let go. Of course, your point addresses performance, not how a stereo performs. Fun issue though.

Maybe Paulp can integrate it into a response...?
Ernie (Subaruguru) and Muralman, thnak you, but you should give credit to Asa for the catalyzation idea as well as the notion of sufficency.

Ernie, you've really opened a can of worms with the first arrival/second arrival problem. From a designer acquaintance (a scientific objectivist, Asa): "we don't have complete accuracy available as of yet. We may have accuracy on one dimension, such as axial frequency response, but not have accuracy in another dimension, such as sound field arrival vector/intensity accuracy." Moreover, "angle of arrival has much to do with perceived tonal balance. While the data can be gathered there is no established perceptual index for percentage of program intensity per program angle of arrival, even though it plays a very significant role in perceived accuracy. This of course includes boundary effects, timing/phase cues as well as angle of incidence. The perceived summation is quite complex." (These are not my ideas, so don't give me credit for them.)

So, Asa, I think that frequency response is all important in accurately reproducing the recorded event. The caveats are that (1) a perfectly accurate on-axis frequency response may not result in accuracy at your ears in your listening room, and (2) you may find a dollop of sweetness or a rounded edge or a little tweaking with presence for soundstaging effects more pleasing to your ears. (I might too.)

There are lots of other things to measure besides on-axis response; dispersion, off-axis response of speakers, cabinet resonance in speakers, jitter in cdps, amplifier performance into real loads, etc. I think everything that can be heard can be measured. The trick is using the measurements to predict what the listener will experience in his chair in his room.

Asa, the important issues you bring up deserve more thought and discussion, especially considering the secondary (and tertiary, etc.) arrival problems Ernie raises. Is it possible that there is a level of sufficiency that is preferable to complete accuracy in the real world, in order to minimize some of the problems with secondary arrivals? Is it possible that too much auditory information may be a detriment?

Of course, I think I have said, or at least implied, that I really do prefer a little built in loudness compensation on the bottom for warmth and a little (not much, just a tad) of roll-off at the top. My favorite speakers also employ a BBC or Grundee dip centered around 3khz to move centered vocalists back just a bit in the soundstage. I think these deviations from a flat frequency response yield greater realism, that is they conform to what I hear in real life. But, those are just my preferences.

Paulwp hits a long one again. Although I do not rely on technical statistics, I must admit I peruse them with some amusement. I mainly trust my ears as I hone in on my dream system. I share in the premise there are wave interractions out there that remain unmeasurable. I do not rely on specs for that reason. I would never buy a component based on it's distortion figures. I doubt there is any experienced audiophile that does.

I understand there are live performances and there are live performances. One that I attended this week consisted of electronically reengineered violin music played through an array of outdoor speakers. It was fun, especially the visuals. Never could I recapture that event. Last night I listened to a group playing piano, cello, and violin doing some really thought provoking Chinese scores. I had a good seat, with no early reverberation arrival problems. It was a good live event to judge by.

I remain pleased with how close my evolving system approaches recreating the live experience. Each incremental step takes my enjoyment closer to the heart of musician.
If I may weigh-in here, I have the notion, that a good part of the reason for the measurement aspect of stereo gear is the fact that all components are designed to be interchangeable. Mix and match, if you will. Since the other gear that may be used with any one component is not known my the mfr., an attempt is made to have a "benchmark". This "benchmark" has resulted in a relatively arbitrary, but well meaning, set of measured standards that are meant to assure the user of conformity and usefulness with other units measured by the same standards. So, standards of measurement were adopted for various aspects of performance such as frequency response, total harmonic distortion, power output, etc.

The problem with this is that these processes assume a given idea that flat frequency response or low THD will allow accurate pass-thru to the next component with flat frequency response or low THD. While this may superficially seem to be the case, it is not. Little or no regard is given to the additive or interactive effects of the other components in the chain because the designer is unaware of what the other components will be. So this leads to the designing of equipment in a "vacuum", so to speak. Only the most basic "standards" like output level and impedance levels under static conditions are even considered. All of the other issues are left to the consumer to determine, regarding which items may work well together. And the consumer is ill-equipped to make these decisions, because there is little, if any, data provided for this, and most consumers would not know how to use such data anyway.

This is what leads to the mysterious "synergy" discussions, and the apparent "disconnect" between measurements and sound quality. It is not that the measurements are bad, it is the basic idea of what should be measured, and how to measure it,and provide useful data, that is at the root of the problem.

If a consumer knew that his amp exhibited a THD profile of primarily even-ordered harmonic distortion with a major part at the 2nd harmonic, he could choose a speaker that also had a major part of its THD in the 2nd harmonic,and wire them 180 degrees out of phase, thereby cancelling a significant portion of the distortions of the amp/speaker combination. But, nobody seems to be aware of this type of "system integration design" and none of the measurements really are geared to help anyone do this. Everybody just wants flat response and low distortion, but all components have some dips or rises, and all have some components of distortion. Failure to correctly match these, and other, characteristics will result in additive distortions or frequency anomalies. The consumer is frequently unaware that he is even making this mistake. Also, there is a big difference in having two-tenths of a percent of distortion at the 2nd harmonic, and having one-tenth of a percent at every harmonic point up the scale. In the first case there is a relatively small amount of distortion at one point on the curve. In the second case, there is a smaller maximum distortion rating, but the distortion is all over the place.

So, to sum up, I do believe, as Paulwp seems to, that things that are heard can be measured. But the things measured, and the ways they are measured, and the applications of those measurements leave much to be desired. Now, add that to the things that we haven't learned how to measure, or even realize that they need to be measured, and we end up with a reliance on a faulty set of measurements, and misunderstanding of same, that cannot accurately be used to select our equipment. Thus, many of us rely on our ears to measure what we do know, the sound.

Ultimately the ear is the judge. But I do not discount that certain measurements can lead one to an informed platform from which to begin auditioning, if one can adequately interpret the data that can be found, and apply it in a meaningful way, resulting in a happy combination of components(synergy). And although I personally am a proponent of listening as the final arbiter, I do use design data and measurement data when I can find ways to apply it.

Regarding the brain's interpretation of the sounds generated by the system, I am not in an informed position to comment on that. But I do find it interesting.
Recording music is a highly skilled craft. A skilled recording engineer will take into account the performer, the instruments, the hall, the recording equipment and make assumptions about the playback equipment in order to make what she considers an accurate representation of the musical performance.

For instance, let's say an unaccompanied vocalist has trouble controlling his dynamics and is prone to a slight sibilance. The engineer might pick a microphone with a recessed upper midrange to combat the sibilance and "ride the fader" during the recordings to keep the dynamic range within the optimum area of the storage medium. Alternatively, the engineer could use a compressor/limiter (essentially an automated volume control) and dump the recording into a computer based editor (think of it as a word processing software for music) and repair individual instances where sibilance is an issue. Neither approach is inherently superior and either method can result in a natural sounding recording. The determining element is not the equipment, but the skill of the engineer.

As audiophiles improve their playback systems they may start to reach a point where their systems are capable of readily revealing the artifacts (edits, aggresive EQ, mismatched reverbs, sibilance, low frequency garbage, tape hiss, instrument bleed-thru, air conditioner noise, etc.) of the recording process. These artifacts are not part of the musical performance and as such can only distract from it. I suspect that a large element of how people react to specific pieces of high end equipment revolves around how the equipment deals with these artifacts. I'm over generalizing, but for unknown reasons some equipment heightens and draws attention to these artifacts, while others expose them, but at the same time don't seem to emphasize them. There's so much that we don't know about reproducing music.

BTW, have you ever noticed how in recording orchestras or other large ensembles that the microphones are never positioned where a listner would normally sit?
Agreed, Onhwy61. Also getting back to Rives' room acoustic post.
Once a stereo has reached "perfection" it's the recording which will make or break the reality. Until recordings are perfect, a perfect stereo will show off the recording's faults. Maybe a more musical stereo is better on bad recordings.
Also the perfect stereo needs the correct room to recreate the acoustics of the original event.
The most realistic playback is when a song is new to me and the ear is fooled - at first, for a little while.
Although once got the volume, reverb, and room acoustics just right and felt like Jimmy Hendrix was right in the room. Never could duplicate that again.
61, isn't that a compromise between recording the performance somewhat "as heard" by the audience, but as well with a higher s/n ratio than would be possible if the mics were lower? Also, in MANY halls the first balcony yields a better natural "mix" than the orchestra.
Also the mics CANNOT deal with the Haas Effect (re primary vs secondary arrivals. Even in a small room (mine) I had to get my Earthworks omnis right on my Steinway's strings in order to remove the room sufficiently to actually BETTER the sound than what is heard from my playing position. Sure, the piano is too wide, but spectrally and dynamically its HYPER-real! (There's one for ya, Asa.)
I honestly don't know why the mic placement issue works the way it does, I only know it usually doesn't sound right if you try it otherwise. BTW, what preamp are you using with the Earthworks? Have you heard their speaker?
You see, this how a thread can be reasonable and mature between two groups who just see things from different angles. Because you rely upon science and its accuracies in the first instance, but default ultimately to the product of your accuracies, the result of your science (namely, listening), does not make you an over-bearing materialist; similarly, if you believe scientific measurements are an important tool, but not determitive to the end result of the experiement and that an over-reliance on their veracity can itself be a limitation towards improvement, does not mean you are a regressive New Age romantic idealist. This dialogue, absent egos which identify with ideas as who they are, can occur.

Paulp, interestingly we come down slightly on different sides of the line in ideas on how to get there - not very far apart I would think if we could talk face to face - but still seem inseparable on what "musicality" we are searching for, and which is, I would submit, the dermining factor in why we are here; our love of the beauty of Music transcends our views on how to achieve it.

The difference between us in not in listening, but, again, in the varibles used to get there, our main difference being, again, the assumptions we make, or do not make. Science operates by comparative reductionism; that is the empiricism within its method. In other words, an assumption has developed in science that if you divide something far enough you will disclose all its truth, even though science has not, as yet, conducted this experiment (which is then, by definition of science's own rules, an unscientific assumption). When you say that all sound can be described by scientific terms of further reductionism, even though this has not ocuured with sound (much less music), you commit this fallacy. Perhaps one day science will reach that Grail, or sufficiently so to sufficiently catalyze the mind, but that day has not arrived; scientific measurements can not describe spatio-temporal nuance to a sufficient degree to enable adjustment of the component in that regard strictly based upon those measurements. Even ignoring a Zeno paradox-like problem inherent in such a position (you can divide 1 infinitely, ergo, you can divide sound-pieces infinitely, so you never approach the definitive Truth through that reduction because there is always a remainder), there is no rational basis to conclude that such a reduction will reveal the essense of Truth/Beauty/Music.

My position is that you will always have to listen to hear that beauty in its deepest symmetries (and the experiment of science over the last three hundred years confirms this continual regressing truth into the infinite, i.e. Popper's observation of method that science always disproves the truth which they just "proved" was the Truth). I don't think the "what is" that is suseptible to the imposition of measurement wants you to only use your measurements - or believe that they will eventually be sufficient in and of themselves - to hear the deepest beauty.

As I said, however, the true paradox is that regardless of assumptions in our thinking - and, because we don't need to impose our ideas on each other but share them regardless of their differing content and orientation - we still meet in the middle on what we are here for: to find the beauty in Music.

At its finest, science and its measurements are an integral part of that/the Search.

People who are attached to either pole, namely, of romanticism (denial or reduction of science as a means towards that search), or of materialism (denial of Truth beyond material manipulation) are really the same; in their denials of the truth that each holds forth like a weapon towards the other, their claim of false exclusivity to the Truth, they deny themselves, and ensure their stagnation. They are not searchers, but egos with ideas that they seek to use against others. Regardless of our differing ideas, we are both Searchers, and in that, we transcend our differences - which turn out not to be SUFFICIENT differences at all. This is how we go forwards, together.

I look for Searchers.
What a nice man.

Actually, Asa, I am usually of two minds about just about everything, so on any given day, we might not have any differences at all.

As far as science goes, (this is a gross oversimplification of the systems approach) some try to analyze a leaf by cutting it up and looking at it under a microscope. I look at the tree.

I have a couple of email acquaintances who are always at odds with each other. One a pure subjectivist with no scientific or engineering training who really does not know how sound is recorded, stored and transmitted. The other a well-known math professor who really does know a lot about the science and engineering of audio reproduction. Both of them arrived at the same speakers (Harbeth Monitor 40's - I have smaller Harbeths) as The Truth. Most of the time, I agree with the professor that everything we can hear can be explained by things we already know.
Perhaps it would be instructional for us to look at Buckminster Fuller's theories and constructs which stem from his foundational principals of the inherent "duality" of nature. He has derived an entire "science" which revolves around the basic assumptions of his philosophies.

As it seems, we have arrived at a premise here, which requires "inclusivity" of two superficially opposing points-of-view, which inherently must both be included together in some way, if a "universal truth" is to be derived from this study/discussion. Since both ends use empirical data, albeit with different methodologies, a link may be available.

The superficial "duality"is a dilemma, and the obvious "goal" would be to find an underlying "tie", which would link both approaches with a "unified theory" of sorts.

We must find a way to swim through the ether, that appears to separate these ideas, but ultimately binds them together in an shadowy interconnected-ness, that is not easily seen by superficial inspection.

A question would then arise, do we start from one end and work toward the other, or do we start from an intermediate point and pull both ends toward each other at the same time?
Or it is even possible to bring them together? Would there be a "quantum break", in which closing in on one observation would cause it's counterpart to be less observable, such as is the case with sub-atomic particle speeds and locations? Are we dealing with a Von Schroedinger dilemma, where all probabilities exist simultaneously on a wave-function until observation occurs? Can we quantify the probability curves of these occurences, to make some useful data?

Or do we simply accept this duality as "yin & yang", with both being equally required for equilibrium, never meeting but never apart? With a philosophical satisfaction that the twain shall never meet, and that they are just roads to journey on the way toward enlightenment?

Just a few thoughts to ponder on this subject.